Wednesday, March 26, 2014


The author and a painting of him and his mother

Stephen Poleskie
a short story

UNTIL HE WAS three years old, John’s mother had dressed him like the daughter she always wanted: long hair in curls, and white outfits with short pants, embroidered collars, and knee socks. But then, when his sister was born and shortly after his father was called up for military duty, John became his mother’s “little man,” wearing tiny versions of grown men’s suits that his mother made for him, and enormous, striped neckties that belonged to his father.

When it came time to enroll in first grade John went off to school by himself. His mother had to stay at home with his baby sister. As there were no school buses in his small town, John waited on the corner until a group of students passed by and followed them the mile or so to the school. John tagged along, carrying his lunch in a brown paper bag, lagging slightly behind the group as they seemed unwilling to let him join them. He had spent most of his first five years in their small, second floor apartment with his mother and sister, playing by himself, rarely going outside. The pages of John’s youth had not been filled with friends.

Waiting anxiously in line to register, John noticed that he was the only child there without a parent; some were even accompanied by both of their parents. When his turn came John stepped up and presented his documents to the lady seated behind the cluttered table. The woman looked down at his papers, frowned, and shook her head.

“You are only five years old, that’s too young,” she announced. “You can’t start first grade until you’re six.”

John was confused—he had not expected to be challenged. He had begged his mother to send him to school a year early, and she had consented. “Yes Ma’am, I know I am only five now, but I will be six before the school year is over,” John said, preparing his young self for the possibility of rejection. Pleading his case, he went on, “and I can already read and write, my mother taught me, and I really want to go to school so I can learn a lot of new things.”

“But you won’t be six until June third, and school ends on June ninth, you have got to be six for at least half of the year. Are you sure you’re supposed to be here? Where is your mother?” The woman behind the desk looked stern and intimidating. Even seated she was almost twice as tall as John was standing.

“She’s at home with my baby sister and can’t come. . . .”

“Then why didn’t you bring your father?”

 “He can’t come because . . . because. . . .”

John was positive that if he told them his father was away in the army serving his country they would let him in school, but his timid attempt to address this woman, who so towered over him, had caused his lips to quickly succumb to confusion. As a consequence, John was sent home from school on his very first day.

Once outside of the massive building John began to cry. Too embarrassed to go home and tell his mother what had happened, he decided to go to his grandmother’s house and spend the rest of the day with her.

John did not reveal to his granny that he had been to school and put out, but said his mother had made him a lunch and sent him over to visit, which she often did. His grandmother lived alone. A coal mine explosion had taken her husband from her six years ago. He had immigrated to America from Poland where he had worked in a shipyard and gone on strike, and not been rehired when the yard opened again.

The little boy passed most of the day talking and playing checkers with his grandmother in the shade of her grape arbor. The vines still bore fruit. The purple clusters hung down with a sweet ripeness, attracting the busyness of bees that swarmed in the warm September sun. Unable to concentrate on the game, John retreated into his thoughts. He was happy here. Why he had wanted so badly to start school after all?

When John saw the other children coming down the hill from school, he said goodbye to his grandmother and headed home.

“How was your first day at school my little man?” his mother asked, kissing John on the forehead as soon as he came in the door. “Didn’t they give you any books?” she asked noticing his empty hands.


 “Did you meet any new friends?”

“Did you like school?”
“No. It was boring. I already know all I have to know . . . I don’t think I want to go back again tomorrow . . . or ever.”
After that brief display of lies and bravado, John broke down and cried, telling his mother all that had happened. How they told him he was too young to start school, and that he should first go to kindergarten. And how they thought he wasn’t supposed to be there because he didn’t have a mother or father with him, and all the other children had someone. And how he wished his father wasn’t away in the army.
His mother cried because John was crying. She told him that he couldn’t go to kindergarten because this cost money, which she did not have, but she would go back with him tomorrow to the public school, which was free, and try to get him in.
Standing in front of the desk, with the baby she had carried the mile up the hill on her arm, John’s mother begged to have her son enrolled even though he was too young. The principal, a large and kindly woman, was impressed that John could already read and write. His mother had also brought some of his drawings to show, which the principal said were very accomplished. After a short discussion with the first grade teacher, John was allowed in school. A little bird had fallen from its nest, and been picked up and put back.
John’s mother walked down the hill carrying his baby sister, proud and happy for her son. But the damage already had been done. All through the boredom of that first year, which John spent mostly relearning things that he already knew, he would be taunted by his classmates as the little boy who had been sent home on his first day.

*   *   *


Stephen Poleskie is a writer and artist. His writing, fiction and nonfiction, has appeared in many journals in the USA and D'Ars, and Spazio Umano, in Italy, Himmelschrieber in Germany, In Other Voices: Merida in Mexico, The Criterion in India, and Imago in Australia. He also has short stories in two anthologies, Being Human, and The Book of Love from W. W. Norton, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He has published six novels.  His artwork is in the collections of numerous museums including the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tate Gallery in London. He has taught, or been a visiting professor at twenty-seven colleges and art schools throughout the world, including: MIT, Rhode Island School of Design, the School of Visual Art in New York and the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently a professor emeritus at Cornell University. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife, the novelist, Jeanne Mackin. Web site:

This story, Too Early for School, appeared in the June 2013 issue of The Criterion, an English language magazine published in India.